Roses In Early America

Some time ago, Mr.Stephen Scanniello, President of the Heritage Rose Foundation, made a presentation to the Connecticut Rose Society describing his efforts to re-introduce the roses of history to New York City by planting surviving varieties throughout Manhattan.  In the course of his talk, he recounted how Alexander Hamilton’s wife Elizabeth had included roses in the landscaping of their estate, The Grange, in upper Harlem around 1802.

That got me to thinking – we know that roses go back long before that in the rest of the world, but what about in the New World? As a student of early American history and author of two books on our nation’s founding, I was well aware of Hamilton, his wife Elizabeth and The Grange, but I did not know about their incorporation of roses into their landscape.  So, I did a little research.  Here is what I learned.

Roses have been grown in North America for longer than most of us imagine.  When the Jamestown settlers first landed on a Virginia beach, the Native Americans were already beautifying their villages with roses.  Captain John Smith reported seeing roses all around the Powhatan camps in his journal.  He did not report the varieties, their origins or whether they were used for medicinal or culinary purposes (perhaps he did not know), but going back at least to 1606 seems like heritage enough.

The Pilgrims planted roses at Plymouth Plantation starting in 1621. Their first governor, John Carver, reported in his journal that they planted “reds, whites and damasks.”  He did not say where they got the plants and there is no mention of roses on the bill of lading for the Mayflower.  We can only surmise that, knowing what we know about the Powhatan roses, the Pilgrims might have gotten them from the surrounding Native American tribes.

In 1699, on his return voyage from London, William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania colony, brought “18 rose bushes.”  In addition to growing them on his property, he must have propagated them, because, starting in 1731 he used them in lieu of cash for payments of rent on land parcels he was occupying.  So, we know that they were held in high value in the colonies.  Being something of a botanist, Penn also made reference to them for their “beauty and medicinal properties” in his Book of Physics.

Benjamin Franklin, the earliest of the six major Founding Fathers (I call them “The Super Six” in my book, Pilgrims To Patriots) was renowned in the western world as a ground breaking scientist.  He proved that lightning is electricity.  He invented batteries, the wood stove and bifocal glasses.  You would think that he might have dabbled in the most popular plant of the day – the rose.  He did not.  At least, there is no evidence of it in his writings or records.

Neither did another of the Super Six – James Madison.  But, we can forgive him since he was fragile and sickly his whole life, despite having outlived all the rest, to the age of 85.  Nonetheless, with an estate of hundreds of acres in which he took great pride, it is hard to imagine that he did not have them, especially since his friends did, especially Thomas Jefferson.

We know Thomas Jefferson to have been a plantsman, botanist, farmer, and landscape designer.  His papers are replete with references to his growing of Gallica’s, “Sweetbriars” (likely what we know as Eglantines), and wild roses of unnamed varieties.

Jefferson placed an order with the William Prince Nursery of Flushing Landing, New York in 1791, as follows:  “Two ‘Roses of the Month’ (!!! Yes, the merchants of the day conducted marketing campaigns very much like ours!) – ‘Old Blush’, two China roses, and two Musks, ‘r. Moschata’.”  Not only do his papers contain the original of this order, but also the receipt, signed by him.

In a November 1, 1816 journal entry, Jefferson reported his planting of roses at his getaway retreat, Poplar Forest, thus:  “…(I) planted large roses of difft. kinds in the oval bed in the N. front, dwarf roses in the N.E. oval…”  There is no doubt that Jefferson was an avid rose grower, if not rosarian.

Nor can there be doubt about John Adams’ affinity for roses.  While there is no mention in his or Abigail’s papers of his growing roses on his various personal properties, we know that he ordered the first planting of roses on White House grounds in 1800.  So, despite claims that Ellen Wilson established the White House Rose Garden in 1913, or that maybe Edith Roosevelt did in 1902, it turns out that John Adams beat them to it by at least 100 years.

Was Steve Scanniello correct when he reported that Eliza Hamilton planted roses at The Grange?  He sure was.  From Alexander’s papers, we know that he was captivated by landscaping.  In planning for the construction of The Grange, Alexander sought direction from agricultural expert Richard Peters, from Thomas Jefferson himself, and from Dr. David Hosack, a professor of botany at Columbia College and founder of the botanical garden there.

Alexander visited the botanical garden frequently and got advice from Hosack on his landscape plan.  This culminated in Alexander’s specific directions for Eliza’s installation that included the front rotunda:  “…the space should be planted with wild roses…”  He didn’t specify the varieties, leaving that to Eliza, but we know from the pride he showed in the finished estate in 1802 that she chose and positioned them wisely.

That leaves the last of my Super Six, George Washington.  As with other aspects of his life, he is credited with much, but some must be assessed with what they call in the Navy “a weather eye.”

The history books report that Washington bred roses.  The most prominent reference is to the “Mary Washington” – a double, repeating white/near white/white blend Noisette that he is said to have named after his mother.  Here’s the problem:  George died in 1799; the Noisette is reported to have been first hybridized in 1810 (by John Champney of South Carolina).  Did Washington create a rose of another class that history now assigns to him as a Noisette?  Or, has a myth “grown” up around Washington’s obvious love of roses as a simple gardener?  You be the judge.  In any event, “Mary Washington” can still be bought as a direct descendant of that original plant with those same qualities, whoever bred it.

The beloved genus rosa, has been around a long time, longer in other parts of the world than in ours, but the history of the rose on our continent goes back plenty far – back into the dim recesses of Native American history, perhaps before Europeans arrived.  We may never know whether the rose made its way over the Bering Straits with the earliest peoples, or if it first came from the East over the Atlantic.  But, we do know that those who populated the New World treasured it from the beginning for its beauty, its medicinal and culinary qualities, and its toughness.  And, we are indebted to them for it.

Alex grows what roses he can in his shaded garden and is a Board member of the Connecticut Rose Society. He is the author of Pilgrims To Patriots, A Grandfather Tells The Story, and American Amazons: Colonial Women Who Changed History, both available from Amazon in print and ebook formats.

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